Storm over new Kuwaiti port that Iraq says will block its own shipping

Iraqis say the Mubarak al Kabeer port being built by Kuwait on Boubyan Island will strangle their own shipping industry by blocking access to the sea through the narrow Khawr Abdullah waterway.

Boubyan Island, the largest island in Kuwait, where a commercial seaport is currently being built, to the dismay of many Iraqis. Andrew Henderson / The National
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KUWAIT CITY // Construction of a port near Iraq's coast is moving ahead as scheduled despite increasingly vocal opposition from Baghdad, government engineers said this week.

Iraqis say the Mubarak al Kabeer port being built by Kuwait on Boubyan Island will strangle their own shipping industry by blocking access to the sea through the narrow Khawr Abdullah waterway.

The perceived threat to Iraq's shipping lanes has led members of the Iraqi parliament to campaign against the Kuwaiti project and Iraqi citizens to protest against it in the coastal city of Basra.

Ghalib Safouq, the engineer in charge of the port's construction, said this week: "They have some doubts. We are explaining it to them." Mr Safouq said the Kuwaiti government provided an Iraqi delegation with detailed plans of the port, which is in the early stages of construction, to prove it is of no threat to the Iraqi shipping industry.

Kuwait cannot change the timetable aimed at opening the facility with four berths in March 2016, Mr Safouq said.

Hadi Al Amari, Iraq's transportation minister, said this month that the construction of the port "demonstrates the clear intention of Kuwait to block shipping lanes from Iraqi ports and contradicts UN resolutions.

"We say we will not accept that Basra and Iraq be strangled in any way," the minister said, according to Agence France-Presse.

An Iraqi diplomatic source said the government has not yet commented on the issue officially, but added that an announcement is expected from Baghdad soon.

Kuwait's parliamentarians have been vocal in demanding that the government follows through with the development.

MP Jamaan al Harbash said: "Any backing down from the construction of the Mubarak port is a backing down from Kuwait's sovereignty."

Kuwait hopes to eventually expand Mubarak al Kabeer to a size that would make it the largest port in the northern Gulf. The main rival to the new facility could be from Iraq itself - the multibillion dollar Grand Faw Port planned for the opposite side of the waterway.

The planners of both facilities hope to eventually link the ports with rail networks that will enable cargo to travel from the east to the ports and then overland to the Levant or Europe, providing shippers an alternative to the Suez Canal.

Abdul Muneim al Safi, the head of media relations at the Iraqi ministry of transport's General Company of Iraq Ports, said: "This canal is used by ships coming and going from and into Iraq.

"There is no port in the world that is built in a canal, especially not between two countries that share a maritime border. It will stifle Iraq economically; three other Iraqi ports will be paralysed."

The United Nations Boundary Commission demarcated borders between Iraq and Kuwait after the first Gulf War, with a maritime border running down the middle of the Khawr Abdullah waterway.

Iraq has since complained that the boundary does not give it enough access to the sea.

Jasem Assiri, an engineer in Kuwait's ministry of public works, said construction of the Kuwaiti port will help Iraq's ports because the engineers will deepen channels leading up to the facility that ships going to Iraq will also be able to use.

"This is why we are trying to show them all the drawings, all the plans. Everything we have," Mr Assiri said. "There's nothing that we are hiding, because basically there is nothing to be hidden."

"The whole project is being made in our water, our land," he added.

Mr al Safi said: "It's their right to build in their own territorial waters, but international conventions say that a country must take into account the interests of its neighbours."

Reyadh Faris, an economist at Kuwait University, said he believed Iraq's objection to Kuwait building on Boubyan Island was not economical, but political "because some Iraqis still believe Kuwait is a part of Iraq".

He said Iraqi could benefit from the Mubarak al Kabeer port because Kuwaiti ports generally provide better facilities than those in Iraq.

"I can't understand their concerns," he said of members of Iraq parliament who have attacked Kuwait's plan. I don't know how seriously we should take these threats."